There are two misconceptions about gumbo that Laila Ali wants to clear up: that it’s unhealthy, and that it’s hard to make.
“There are many secrets to my gumbo, but I’m not going to tell all of them,” Ali, 40, tells PEOPLE for our exclusive video series, My Food Story.
She will however share most of them, along with how she grew to love gumbo.
“I can remember the first time I had a pot of gumbo; it was when my Grandma Ethel made it,” Ali says. “Our family is from Lake Charles [Louisiana], and she has a very specific way that she made her gumbo, and it was so tasty.”
The mom of two says the key to a great gumbo is in the roux.
“It’s crazy because a lot of people think gumbo is so hard to make, but to me it’s so easy,” Ali says. “One thing is always the same with gumbo, you’ve got to do the roux, and you’ve got to get it just right, and that’s a thing that a lot of people mess up. You’ve got to stand over the stove and stir it until it gets to the right color, somewhere in the middle of milk chocolate and dark chocolate.”
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To put a healthy spin on the seafood dish, Ali uses whole wheat flour instead of white flour in her roux and subs butter for extra-virgin olive oil.
Watch how it’s done in the video above, then follow her recipe below to taste it for yourself.
Laila Ali’s Seafood Gumbo
2 tbsp. onion powder
2 tbsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. celery seed
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. dried parsley
1 tsp. dried marjoram
1½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided
1½ tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste, divided
1½ tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
½ tsp. paprika
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1½ pounds)
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
⅔ cup whole wheat flour
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 scallions, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. minced garlic
4 cups chicken broth, heated to lukewarm
1 (8-oz.) bottle clam juice
6 oz. andouille sausage or another firm smoked sausage, sliced ⅓ inch thick
1 lb. small shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 (8-oz.) container lump crabmeat, drained if necessary
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Cooked brown rice, for serving
1. In a small bowl, mix together onion powder, garlic powder, celery seeds, dried thyme, parsley, marjoram, and 1 teaspoon black pepper; reserve 1 tablespoon and store rest for another use. In another small bowl, mix together ½ teaspoon of the salt, the reserved spice mixture, Old Bay, and paprika.
2. Put the chicken in a large bowl and toss with the seasoning mix to coat it all over.
3. In a large, heavy saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat. Place the chicken in the pan (in two batches if it doesn’t all fit at once) and cook for about 5 minutes on each side, until lightly browned all over. Transfer to a plate and wipe out the pan. (If any bits are stuck to the bottom of the pan, add a small amount of the broth, stir to release them, and pour the flavorful liquid onto the chicken, then wipe out the pan.)
4. In the same pan, heat the remaining ½ cup oil over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes to get it good and hot. Reduce the heat to medium and add the flour, gradually stirring it in with a wooden spoon to smooth out any lumps and form a paste. Cook, stirring continuously, until a deep reddish- brown (somewhere between milk chocolate and dark chocolate in color) roux is formed, 20 to 25 minutes, reducing the heat a little if the roux starts coloring too quickly and scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent burning.
5. Add the onion, scallions, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the broth in a slow, steady stream, stirring well. Add the clam juice, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Chop the chicken into bite-size pieces and add it to the pan along with the sausage. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and remaining ½ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium- low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally as the gumbo thickens. Stir in the shrimp and crab and cook for about 3 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked through and the crab is heated through. Stir in the lemon juice and parsley; taste and add more lemon juice and/or salt if needed. Serve over rice.